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Pope Still Catholic
Catholic Church Reaffirms Doctrine, Media Swoons

The Catholic Church is once again on the verge of validating the worldview of the NYT—or so the Grey Lady seems to believe. The NYT‘s enthusiasm this time concerns a document released in the middle of the ongoing Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops, convened to discuss marriage and the family.

Here are the facts as we know them. In October of last year Pope Francis announced that the Vatican would host a gathering of select Bishops from around the world this month. (For more about what a synod actually is, and how it relates to other assemblies of the Catholic Church, see this helpful primer from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

The hot-button cultural issues popular in the NYT newsroom have been on the agenda from the start. In advance of the gathering, dioceses around the world sent out a survey to ordinary Catholic parishioners, asking them questions about their beliefs on topics like divorce and contraception. In addition, members of the Catholic hierarchy engaged in a public debate over whether remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion. Seeing all of this, Catholics and non-Catholics alike who wish the Church to sound more progressive began to cheerlead the Synod before it even began, hoping for a major revision in Church tone or doctrine.

Yesterday it seemed like their prayers were answered. The Synod released a short document called Relatio post disceptationem, or “report after the discussion.” The document is neither a final report nor a complete statement of the Synod’s position on sexual ethics, but rather a rough draft report of the discussion that has so far occurred midway through the Synod. In a piece on the report, John Allen Jr. notes that “a midterm report in a synod of bishops has no official standing in Catholic theology as a statement of binding church teaching.” He further highlights that the Synod’s forthcoming final report will itself be provisional, since it is meant only to lay the groundwork for another, larger meeting in October of next year. 

The report in question, then, is a provisional draft of a non-binding recommendation to the Pope that even in its final form will only be setting the stage for another meeting next year. That didn’t stop it from exciting the media, which tends to dismiss the Church as a relic of the Dark Ages but apparently has an insatiable appetite for anything the Church says on sexuality. The New Yorker called it a “bombshell document”, while CBS deemed it a “seismic shift.” Other reactions were similar.

The section of the report that inspired the media fervor had to do with the moral status of cohabiting couples, remarried Catholics, and homosexual relationships. In particular, the document notes that the remarried are to be treated with respect, and that there are “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.” These aspects include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” Furthermore, the document says, in a highly quoted passage, that “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” 

The reaction from the NYT is typical:

The document was greeted with instant enthusiasm by gay rights groups and advocates of church reform who have been hoping the synod would produce substantive change.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said, “These recognitions are total reversals of earlier church statements which labeled such an orientation as ‘objectively disordered’ and which viewed gay and lesbian people in faith communities as problems and suspect persons.” […]

The Rev. James Martin, editor at large of America, the Jesuit magazine, said that “even though this is an interim document, it represents a revolution in the way the church speaks about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

But the idea that some good can be found in relationships that Catholic doctrine considers irregular or inherently disordered is not a new position. And the document changes nothing about remarried Catholics receiving communion, nor did it change, for example, church teaching about the nature of marriage. On the contrary, the document explicitly reaffirmed the Catholic opposition to recognizing gay unions as marriages, albeit in language that was milder than some would have liked (“unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman”).

Elizabeth Dias at Time has a helpfully deflating take here. Even the idea of a “tonal shift” seems suspect. Anyone who has ever attended Catholic wedding prep class or seminar in an average American parish, for example, knows that cohabiting couples are already treated in a very accommodating way.

It will be interesting to see how the Synod’s report develops as it nears its final form, especially in light of the criticism conservatives have directed at the report’s current language. But in the meantime, we appear to be dealing here with another instance of the media being coaxed into cheering on a restatement of Catholic theology. That feat, at least, remains notable.

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  • jeburke

    As a church-going Catholic, I can testify that I have not heard a critical word about cohabiting couples from a priest or lay leader in 40 years. Thus, it is no surprise that Andrew Cuomo’s very public cohabitation with his girlfriend, not to mention his divorce, has not drawn a peep from any of New York State’s bishops. The Church has long “accomodated” to this commonplace conduct. At the same time, I’m certain that there will never be a second Cuomo wedding in a Catholic Church. The theology of matrimony — it’s a sacrament, a gift from God, and entails holy vows taken in God’s presence — makes that impossible.

    • Corlyss

      Well, if the Church is willing to make a deal with pedophile devils to keep enough priests celebrating mass, what compromises with their moral principles will they NOT make to keep parishioners (i.e., the paying audience)?

      • jeburke

        The Church is a great deal more than the sum of whatever bunch of men happen to populate the priesthood at any moment across its 2000-year history.

        • FriendlyGoat

          JESUS is actually “a great deal more than the sum of whatever bunch of men happen to populate the priesthood at a moment in history. “The Church”, however, Catholic or otherwise, is precisely the sum of the people running and supporting it. What else could it possibly be?

          • Tom

            Which would still make it more than a bunch of priests. It is also the laity.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Sheep, led around by good shepherds, or by bad shepherds, or maybe by shepherds the sheep do not know whether are good or bad?

            (I’m not Catholic bashing here—-unless anyone is arguing that the Catholic Church is “THE” church. Examples abound of huge charades, shenanigans and miscarriages of trust in many protestant places too.)

          • Corlyss

            It’s dwindling laity. It may get an occasional uptick from Pope Francis’ obvious personal creds but that won’t last beyond the next abuse scandal, of which there will most certainly be more.

          • Tom

            Maybe. I’m not Catholic, but hopefully the Catholic Church will do some major house-cleaning, and hopefully the headlines for the next sex scandal (because I agree, there will be one) will read “Local Priest Forced to Confess Crimes by Threat of Excommunication.”
            That having been said, the RCC is a 1500 year-old bureaucracy, with all that implies.

        • Corlyss

          Perhaps, but as an institution run by men in the name of God based on writings perforce channeled thru men, it has a serious PR problem in a number of areas, which might explain the less than enthusiastic church attendance in most Western nations. The message is only as good as the medium and if the medium is seen as a bunch of perverts, and you can’t tell who’s giving you communion, you can’t blame the frail human from wondering why his allegiance and his money is demanded so earnestly without concern for his opinion. In the market place of ideas, the churches are just another booth and the consumer can pick the booth he wants to give his business to. That, in a nutshell, is the Church’s conundrum. You can talk all you want to about God’s Truth and who has it, but as long as the consumer remains to be convinced, the barker has to care how he and his message are perceived.

      • BobSykes

        The legal, psychological and dictionary definition of pedophilia is sex with pre-pubescent children. What happened in the Catholic Church was not pedophilia; it was homosexual assaults on and seductions of teenage altar boys by homosexual priests. For true pedophilia, as well as heterosexual and homosexual assaults and seductions, you have to go to the public schools.

        However, it is true that in the collapse of holy orders following Vatican II, the Church permitted many homosexual men to enter seminaries who not otherwise have been admitted. And there is today a “Lavender Mafia” in the Church, which includes some high-ranking prelates.

        The Church is a favorite target because its centralization makes feasible lucrative lawsuits. Anti-Catholic bigotry is also encouraged by leftists because it is their enemy. But the Church’s problems with abuse of teenagers is common to every organization that deals extensively with children. Much more rigorous screening of the adults who care for teenagers and children is needed, and homosexuals and pedophiles should be excluded from such jobs.

        • Corlyss

          “The legal, psychological and dictionary definition of pedophilia is sex with pre-pubescent children.”
          What’s your cite for your attribution of your definition to a law? The age of consent is all that counts to the law. That’s 18 in most states. Sex with anyone under that age is statutory rape, period, and gets the convicted a “pedophile” tag on their jacket.

  • Corlyss

    Catholic Church Reaffirms Doctrine, Media Swoons
    LOL. Did you guys hire some wag from The Onion?

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